I happen to be starting the teaching part of my new job at the same time I’ve really started to think about how little compulsory, white-majority formal education teaches learners about privilege. It’s come to mind in several online discussions over the past few weeks, and I began forming more structured thoughts when a friend of mine asked this question a couple of days ago: why do the writers and artists whose work she enjoys often turn out to have said or done problematic things?
An interesting discussion about authorial intent and the work of reading had already started by the time I came to the discussion. My immediate reply was, in essence: Because a lot of people in general aren’t equipped to be able to recognise their privilege and don’t know how to react constructively when it’s brought to their attention. Why would the creators of texts be any different?
And then I started to think about the awkward and hurtful situations that compulsory education does equip young people to deal with, why being called out about privilege isn’t one of them, and how it could be.
Teachers, parents, and other adults in formal or informal authority model the behaviour that they want to see in children. The chances are, most people reading this who ever went to communal play sessions at creches, friends’ houses, kindergartens and so on will have had the experience of making another child cry and not understanding what we did wrong. It was the adults in charge who explained (sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly) what we had done, and giving us glimpses of a wider web of social norms behind the immediate incident. We don’t bite other people. At playgroup we share our toys. We don’t put all the chocolate biscuits straight on to our plate.
(Disclaimer: I work in higher education, not early years education: I don’t know what current research into childhood learning has to say on this. I will make a fair guess it probably doesn’t approve of taking all the chocolate biscuits.)
Until compulsory education starts, what children learn about social interaction is up to their carers and other adults their carers have brought them into contact with. School operates to put down a baseline, however children have been taught until then. This is why we have subjects such as (what the English national curriculum calls) personal, social and health education, citizenship, and after a certain age sex education.
These days, part of this includes teaching about difference, in ways that are worked right through the curriculum. The current National Curriculum standards for teaching citizenship in England begin, at Key Stage 1, with four areas of knowledge, skills and understanding including ‘Developing good relationships and respecting the differences between people’, at the same time as teaching about fairness/unfairness and why teasing and bullying are wrong. Tolerance and the fair treatment of others are, clearly, an integral part of citizenship education. As they should be.
But maybe there are some problems with the idea of tolerance when you break it down a bit. (I have in mind several critiques of tolerance in the social sciences, particularly Wendy Brown’s book Regulating Aversion and comments by Stef Jansen in some of his research (PDF) on cosmopolitanism in former Yugoslavia.) One of them could be that it ‘reifies’ difference – that is, it makes difference out as a Thing that is just There, without needing anyone to ask about how it got like that. Another is Wendy Brown’s idea that being tolerant depends on being able to point to some intolerant Other whom, as a society, we tell ourselves that we’re not like. A third is that it assumes that everyone in that social relationship is equal. Equal in worth, yes. But equal in terms of power?
Obviously that’s not the case. So there are matters of privilege that a tolerance framework may not deal with very well.
The easiest entry point for thinking about privilege is often the idea of a privilege ‘checklist’. Peggy McIntosh’s essay ‘White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack‘ listed fifty daily effects of white privilege that she had identified in her own life, from items such as ‘When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is’ to ‘I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection’. Further writers have adapted the format to speak about other dimensions of privilege, such as male privilege or cissexism. McIntosh used the ‘invisible knapsack’ metaphor to highlight the ways in white people are taught not to be aware of the advantages their privilege gives them:
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
A few months ago, John Scalzi updated the metaphor for a generation who have grown up with gaming by comparing privilege to playing The Real World on the lowest difficulty setting.
Both pieces have their flaws – Jacob Faber, for instance, points out that the McIntosh essay masks the structural and historical effects of privilege by talking only about interpersonal relationships. Checklists can create the false impression that each form of privilege is the same as every other. They can get used as scorecards in an Oppression Olympics. But maybe pieces like these by authors who are learning about their own privilege still have some value as initial, partial introductions to the idea (although I’d strongly prefer to have a better historicised version of the McIntosh list on hand). They’re also probably where many learners who get their information online will start, at least for now.
It’s very easy for people who consider themselves socially conscious to speak from a position of privilege and not realise that they’re doing it. That very speech may well cause extra harm, by denying and invalidating someone else’s identity or experiences. I know that I’ve done this in the past, and I know there’s a continued – though I hope lessened – risk of me doing it in the future.
(Of course, it’s also easy to speak from a position of privilege, know that you are doing it, and to intend to cause harm. That behaviour in a way is easier to challenge.)
The question then becomes: what’s the right thing to do when someone tells you what you’ve done?
Shut the fuck up and listen, as it tends to be phrased online, is a good start.
Not to be defensive, to justify yourself, to shut down the person speaking to you, or to try and explain what you really meant was something else. To listen. And then to accept you may be under more scrutiny for how you talk about that issue in the future; that there are trust relationships you may have to rebuild over time, being judged on your actions; that sometimes those relations can’t go back to being what they were, and that the power to determine that doesn’t belong to you.
It’s an important skill in order to move through society in a more ethical way. I’m thirty and I feel as if I’m only just getting to grips with it. I’ve been in situations in the last few years that I know I would have handled differently several years before because I just had no damn idea about what goes on. What I’ve absorbed, I’ve absorbed from some of the important friendships in my life, through my everyday online reading practices, and through literature, such as the way that N K Jemisin and David Anthony Durham handle godly and royal characters in their speculative fiction.
The social script for what you ought to do is quite simple, really. But it’s missing from how we institutionally teach young people about growing up.
No teacher ever brought a video into any classroom I was in and started a discussion about how we should deal with the privilege in our own lives. I don’t even know what that video would look like. Though maybe it would have a dog and a gecko in it.
I don’t want to imply that all teachers fail to teach about privilege. Of course some teachers do it already. A few of my teachers did it, in their ways. And the view from other schools will be very different to the view from the privileged, white-majority, middle-class schools I was educated in. Of course teachers are teaching about this already. But education seems not to. There are very powerful structural reasons – such as the idea of education as a mechanism for the reproduction of privilege – that might begin to explain why not.
I shouldn’t be thirty and only just working this out.
Though what gives me hope is that so many of the people I’ve learned, and am still learning, about this from are younger than me.
 On being a fan of problematic things: an essay called ‘How to be a fan of problematic things‘ is a good introduction to thinking critically about the texts we like. I first noticed it during a blogosphere controversy over the depiction of sexual violence in Game of Thrones, but it applies to practically any medium and genre.
 Thanks to Teddy Noel-Hill for reminding me several weeks ago of some class discussions about this.
 Thanks to @marxroadrunner on Twitter for a much more in-depth link.